The Ben Nevis distillery (also 'Bennevis' and 'Benevas') is located off
the beaten track in Inverness-shire in the West of the Highlands. The
distillery is said to have been founded in 1825 by 'Long John' McDonald.
When Long John Distillers bought back the Ben Nevis
distillery in 1971 they removed the Coffey still again and
returned to producing malt whisky exclusively. So, Ben
Nevis was only able to produce a single blend (made
from malt and grain whisky from the ‘same’ distillery)
between the mid-1950s and 1971.
After many changes in ownership 'Ben Nevis Distillery (Fort William) Ltd.'
bought the distillery in 1955. The new owners decided to install a so-called
Coffey still for the production of grain whisky as well.
The Ben Nevis distillery was closed in 1986 and for a while the future was uncertain.
Fortunately it was purchased from Whitbread by the Japanese Nikka distillery in 1989.
It took some time to get the whisky production up and running again, but Ben Nevis was
re-opened again in 1991 and it has been running smoothly ever since.
According to Long John McDonald himself: “There are some who would have you believe that
there exists a kind of divine secret, a miraculous ingredient or genius behind the manufacture
of Scotch Whisky. I however, acknowledge no miracle other than that which is worked when
science and nature combine. The principal ingredients are three; water, barley and yeast,
with a measure of peat smoke or reek. Of these (...) water is the foremost. On Ben Nevis I
was fortunate to find a constant and consistent source of pure clean water in two small lochans.
In order of importance, the second ingredient is barley. This must be clean and plump, fully
rounded and quite dry, containing exactly the right amount of protein. Special distiller's yeast
is the third ingredient. This has the texture of dough or putty and is vital to the process of
fermentation. And fourthly there is peat, which comes to the whisky through the water passing
over peat bogs on its way down the mountain, and from the 'reek' from the fire lit during the
manufacturing process. (...) Nature in her magnificence, has created on the hill behind us,
an ample supply of peat in our own banks to fuel the fires drying the barley.”
Well, at least those were his words on the 14th of June in 1827 - according to the Ben Nevis website.
To tell you the truth, I doubt if the people at Ben Nevis still use peat from that same hill behind the distillery.
In fact, if they had actually used all that peat there might have been no hill left at all by now...
Ben Nevis offers a range of single malts as well as blends. In the early 2000s, they
offered a 10yo and a 26yo single malt, as well as several blends and vatted malts.
The 'Dew of Ben Nevis' blend comes without an age statement, as a 12yo and
as a 21yo. They also offer the 'Glencoe' 8yo vatted malt (a.k.a. ‘blended malt’).
Since Nikka doesn't own any other distilleries in Scotland, I'm rather curious
about the components that go into this vatting besides Ben Nevis malt whisky.
Nikka would have to buy or trade these casks - as well as the other malts that they
might need in the blends’ recipes. They even have to buy the grain whisky now.
Obviously, it's more economical to produce all the necessary ingredients yourself.
Nevertheless, the Scotch whisky industry has a long tradition of cask swapping
without money changing hand. It’s - at cheaper than buying those casks.
Hobbies like wife swapping and sheep swapping may have gone out of
style in the 1970's, but Scotland's cask swapping scene is still alive and well...
As you may have noticed, I've run out of useful things to say about Ben Nevis
distillery by now, so I'll gladly invite you to proceed with the next section...
Many distilleries make a big deal about their location,
but not many are as uniquely situated as Ben Nevis.
The distillery can be found along the bank of the
Lochy River, at the foot of the mountain Ben Nevis.
With a height of 1,345 meters, Ben Nevis is the
highest mountain on the British Isles. The local
scenery is stunning - and it’s one of the few things
that make the long trip worthwhile.
Since the closure of Glenlochy in 1983, Ben Nevis
has been the only distillery in this Western part of
the Highlands. Its closest neighbour is Oban, some
50 kilometres down the coast of Loch Linnhe.
If you were to travel north-east in the opposite direction, you would have to pass Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and
then finally Loch Ness before you would encounter the first distilleries - and the east coast of Scotland.
1) If you find yourself in a situation where you have to pronounce
Ben Nevis, you should emphasise the NE-vis in the second part.
2) Ben Nevis is one of the very few distilleries that were able to
produce a 'single blend' - a mix of malt whisky and grain whisky
produced at the same distillery. That's because the distillery had
both pot stills and a column still at one point. If you find a Ben Nevis
'single blend' these days it's an oldie - the Coffey still was removed
again in 1971. The only distillery that can produce a single blend
these days is Loch Lomond if I'm not mistaken.
6) The most famous 'Blue Label' whisky is probably the ultra premium Johnnie Walker Blue Label blend.
However, Ben Nevis also produces a 'Dew of Ben Nevis Blue Label' blended whisky. Around the year 2010 it was
available for the friendly sum of £20.00. So, you could get 10 bottles of Ben Nevis Blue for the price of one JW.
The Glencoe vatted malt whisky is another whisky brand produced at the Ben Nevis distillery.
3) Around the year 2010, Ben Nevis and Benromach were the only
malt whisky distilleries in Scotland still using brewers yeast for
their whisky. Many people claim that brewers yeast gives more
character to the freshly distilled spirit than distillers yeast. On the
other hand, distillers yeast is favoured by many for its higher yield.
7) Something must have changed at Ben Nevis between 1986 and 1991. The oldest versions I tried (distilled in the
1970s and 1980s) were superb, while the younger versions that were distilled in the 1990s (after Nikka bought and
reopened the distillery) were mostly fairly mediocre. Did the new owners try to make a more ‘Japanese’ whisky style?
4) The Ben Nevis mountain (which lended its name to the Ben
Nevis distillery) is the highest point in Scotland - and in all of the
British Isles as long as Scotland remains part of Great Britain.
It’s elevation is 1345 meters - equaling more than 4,400 feet.
5) Most of the malt whisky that is distilled at Ben Nevis distillery is
used in blends - including their own 'Dew of Ben Nevis'. However, in Japan
Ben Nevis has long been one of the top 10 brands in the single malt whisky segment.
2006 - During the first few years of the new millennium, very little happened
at the Ben Nevis distillery. However, in 2006 the company finally jumped on
the 'finishing' bandwagon with the release of a 13 years old Port finish.
2009 - On their brand new website Ben Nevis suggests that they actually are
'the oldest distillery in Scotland' - which is complete nonsense. At least a
dozen other Scotch whisky distilleries were founded earlier than Ben Nevis,
for example Glenlivet and Highland Park.
2015 - Another 40yo ‘Blended at Birth’ bottling of Ben Nevis is released as a ‘single blend’.
A similar bottle was released in 2002 (vintage 1962) and the price of that bottling tripled in a decade.
2011 - Cooler heads must have prevailed at Ben Nevis HQ. They adapted
the aforementioned silly claim on their website of being the oldest malt whisky
distillery in Scotland. The site now simply state that Ben Nevis is 'one of the
oldest licensed distilleries' - and that statement is actually accurate.
2010 - A 25 years old expression is added to the Ben Nevis portfolio.
Even with a free wooden box, 2 tumblers and a decanter the price is steep.
2002 - A 40yo ‘Blended at Birth’ single blend of Ben Nevis is released.
The vintage was 1962 and it was bottled at 40% ABV exactly 40 years later.
2012 - Ben Nevis introduces 'Hector McDram' - some sort of mascot.
Ben Nevis 1999/2009 (40%, Jean Boyer Best Casks, 1980 Bts.)
Nose: Phew… Sour and unbalanced. Farmy - but not in a good way.
Has little to offer to begin with and completely evaporates within a few minutes.
Taste: Bigger and bolder than the nose suggests, at least for a few seconds. Then it drops off. Harsh finish.
Below average. I started with a score of 71 points but it couldn't even hang on to that score for long.
Score: 68 points - not just below average; this belongs in the 60's I think. But that's just my opinion.
I don't like wine myself (most other maniacs do), so perhaps Jean Boyer's whiskies are too 'winey' for me?
Ben Nevis 1995/2009 (55.5%, The Nectar, Hogshead Cask #964, 212 Bts.)
Nose: Light and sharp with a faintly sweet undercurrent. Farmy. A summertime dram.
Opens up a little after breathing. The nose disintegrates after a few minutes. Babi Pangang.
Taste: Sweet, smooth start. Powers up very quickly, making a much bolder impression than the nose suggests.
Very solid centre that lasts very, very long. Hardly any finish though… Pine?
It looked like it could lift the score into the 80's, until it turned dry and herbal in the very end.
Score: 77 points - the nose wouldn't lift this into the 80's, although it comes close during the first few minutes.
Ben Nevis 32yo 1971/2003 (45.8%, OB, for La Maison du Whisky, Cask #1846)
Nose: Varnish. Polished and a little fruity, growing more pronounced. Some apple?
Beatifully balanced. Mocca? After five minutes some gentle organics emerge.
It hangs together very well and seems to grow even better integrated over time.
Taste: Sweet plums, nectarines and late summer fruits. Dried apples? Toffee as well.
Good mouth feel. Very pleasant, even though it's not terribly complex. Sharpish finish.
Score: 88 points - one of the very best expressions of Ben Nevis I ever tried.
Ben Nevis 34yo 1975/2009 (63%, Prestonfield for LMdW, Bourbon cask #7439, 146 Bts.)
Nose: Peculiar. Silly Putty? Hard to define but very interesting! Some subtle organics behind the wood.
A real teaser; many intriguing smells that suggest more than they give away.
Taste: Big, woody and chewy. Toffee and smoke. The smooth centre is dry and sweet at the same time.
Feels quite hot, although the smoothness suggests this is a grain whisky. Harsh finish though…
Score: 87 points - the nose deserves a score near the 90's but the palate doesn't quite match up.
Ben Nevis 1997/2008 (43%, Jean Boyer Best Casks, 2000 Bts.)
Nose: Not a lot of character - a little farmy. Cardboard. Lemon and some spices emerge after a few minutes.
Taste: Sweetish with a medium body. Nondescript. Smooth. Burnt toffee notes in the finish.
Score: 67 points - clearly, this needed a few more years in those 'best casks'...
Ben Nevis 32yo 1972/2004 (47.6%, OB for LMDW, Hogshead, Cask #600, 116 Bts., D. 02/'72 Btl. 03./'04)
Nose: Heavy sherry attack. Caramel and a hint of smoke. Bourbon roughness. Rubber. Hint of spices.
My kind of profile, but it's fairly 'narrow'; very little beyond the sharp fruitiness.
Taste: Very similar to the nose; just what you'd expect. Again, fairly harsh fruits.
The rough mouth feel reminds me of a a bourbon as well, pulling it out of the 80's.
Score: 79 points - I don't mind a little rubber in the nose, but over time it dominates here.
Ben Nevis 34yo 1970/2005 'Single Blend' (50.3%, Adelphi, Cask #4640)
Nose: Polished but not very expressive initially. Developing organics with a hint of raspberry in the background.
Hint of wassabi? Major improvement, opening up. More organics. Hint of leather? This one definitely needs time.
Taste: Smooth & fruity start. Sweet. Hint of smoke in the centre. Woody. Cheap tannins. Falls apart. Dry finish.
Score: 83 points - a very impressive nose, but it doesn't quite cut the mustard on the palate.
Ben Nevis 15yo 1986/2002 (62.7%, Cadenhead's)
Nose: Ah... A deep, rich fruitiness. Sweet sherry. The fruits slowly dissolve with time.
Then the organics emerge: horse stable, leather and sweat. Something metallic too.
Taste: Taken with very small sips it's extremely fruity and just a tad dusty perhaps.
Take bigger sips and you'll tastebuds will regret it - this is a real afterburner. Nice but hot.
It somehow seems a little more 'toffeeish' with some water. The fruits remain, though.
And interesting sweet & sour playfulness remains, lifting the score by a point or two.
Score: 88 points - that's 1 point more than their Ben Nevis 15yo 1977/1993 (60.9%).
Ben Nevis 30yo 1971/2001 (55.6%, OB, Cask #2516)
Nose: Rich sherry with a hint of coffee, followed by a mellow and musty fruitiness. Sweet dough.
Developing organics. Maggi. Spices. Some 'garden bonfire' smoke. Cherry pralines. A real sherry monster.
Sweaty - there's no other way of describing it. Softens up considerably after some ten minutes, balancing out.
Taste: Smoke and perfume in the start, developing into a fruity centre. Woody finish.
Salty? Not great. Eucalyptus? With some water it didn't soften up noticably.
Another oldie that shines on the nose but is dragged down by the palate.
Score: 87 points - the nose was worthy of a score in the 90's. The taste wasn't.
Ben Nevis 10yo (46%, OB, Bottled +/- 1999, 70cl)
Nose: Furniture polish. A little fruity. Gooseberries? Some pepper and spices.
Very rich. Hint of oil. Nutty, not unlike 'Frangelico' liqueur. Better than average.
Taste: Toffeeish. A bit malty. Sweetish with a little smoke. Slightly dusty.
Strong dark chocolate. Orange peel in the dry finish. Touch of eucalyptus?
Score: 78 points - nothing to be ashamed of; a solid enjoyable OB.
Ben Nevis 15yo 1977/1993 (60.9%, Cadenhead's, Distilled 12/77, Bottled 10/93)
Nose: Aaah... Lovely. Round and sweet with just enough fruits. Melon, perhaps?
Then organics emerge. Whiffs of chloride and dust. Slowly developing organics.
Taste: Smooth and drinkable at c/s. It becomes chewy with a few drops of water.
It feels a bit 'tickly'. Dry and slightly 'winey'. Flat, bitter finish. Loses a few points here.
Score: 87 points - highly recommendable. Proof that Ben Nevis deserves its cult status.
Ben Nevis 8yo 1990/1999 (43%, Signatory Vintage, Sherry butt #1376, 70cl)
Nose: Slightly oily. Hint of sherry. Furniture polish? Vaguely intruiging, but no sherry monster.
A little more smoke later on. Opens up a little with some water but remains soft-spoken.
Taste: Unbalanced. Not sweet enough at first. Slightly oily. Bitter chocolate. Quite odd.
Dull, dry & smoky finish. No soul. Breaks up completely when some water is added.
Score: 67 points - I wonder if anybody selected this particular cask on purpose?
Ben Nevis 8yo 1990/1999 (43%, Signatory Vintage, Sherry butt #1379, 70cl)
Nose: Grainy and a little grassy. Spirity. Faint wax? Some salt. A hint of smoke.
No sweetness at all. A simple and plain character. Like cask #1376, this is simply below par.
Taste: Soft & sweetish at first. A little oily, a little smoky, but ultimately uninspired.
Maltier after a minute with a bitter finish. Not a lot of fun to be had here.
Score: 66 points - another excellent example of poor cask selection...
Ben Nevis 21yo 1996 (52.8%, Single & Single, Sherry cask, 500 Bts.)
Nose: A powerful sherried profile with all the classic traits; wood, raisins, lemon sweets and fruit cake.
Some dusty notes in the background that add to the complexity. A citrussy prickle in the top of the nose.
More late summer fruits after adding a few drops of water. Hint of honey. Over time the citrus grows stronger.
Taste: Very sippable at slightly over 50% ABV. Quite sweet with the faintest hint of smoke.
Undiluted, it starts off powerdul, softening up a lot after a second. A very long, succulant finish.
The palate benefits from a little water. No added complexity, but smoother with more pronounced tannins.
Score: 88 points - this benefits from breathing in the glass - and will brobably improve in an opened bottle.
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Ben Nevis malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Ben Nevis I've tried over the years, but the notes should
convey how I felt about those whiskies. However, these tasting notes only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of whisky bottlings, including Ben Nevis.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.